Thursday, February 24, 2011

Congress and Clean Air

In the guise of budget-cutting, House Republicans are attempting to hamstring the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Recall that under the Bush administration the EPA had decided not to undertake regulation of carbon dioxide and other emissions, and was taken to court by a number of states, ultimately resulting in a Supreme Court decision holding that Bush's EPA had violated its mandate under the Clean Air Act. In other words, the Bush administration was essentially found to have acted unlawfully by failing to follow the legislative requirement that the EPA regulate emissions that contribute to air pollution.

What is the House Republicans' response? They are attempting to cut the EPA's budget drastically, and  re-write the laws so that Congress, not EPA scientists, will be making the determination of what emissions contribute to pollution. For example, one amendment passed by the House last week would preclude the EPA from enforcing any laws regulating greenhouse gas emissions, essentially overruling or rendering unenforceable a central provision of the Clean Air Act. I do not want to open a debate here about the science. I understand the common sense view that carbon dioxide is a natural part of the air we breathe, and is in fact essential for plants to grow. On the other hand, those who think we should not regulate carbon dioxide should recognize that if we breathe too much of it, we die. Therefore, from the point of view of human life, it might make sense to think of it as a pollutant. Even the Bush EPA did not dispute the science determining that these gases are harmful to the environment. I am not a scientist, however, and I am not qualified to debate the effects of carbon dioxide on human life or global temperatures or anything else. I will leave that to others.

My point is simply that a determination of what chemicals cause air pollution IS solely a matter of science, and therefore must be decided by a process of scientific experiment. It is beyond the competence of Congress to legislate whether a given chemical is a pollutant or not. That cannot be decided by debate, or by politics, or by putting the matter to a vote. It is hardly different from the Catholic Church making Galileo recant his findings that the earth goes around the sun. Congress does not have the tools to make those kinds of determinations. And it must be said that Congressmen are hardly unbiased about the matter, being heavily influenced by the contributions of industries who have a keen interest in loosening restrictions on their ability to pollute.

It would be one thing if Congress had decided that the government should not attempt to do anything at all about air pollution.  But Congress long ago decided that the government should attempt to reduce air pollution, and established an agency for the purpose of doing that. The Clean Air Act has been amazingly successful in reducing air pollution. Why would we want to backtrack from our commitment to clean air? Congress has no business second-guessing the agency's scientific determinations of which emissions are harmful and which are not.

If we are lucky, we will be able to count on cooler heads in the Senate to put a stop to efforts by those who do not know what they are talking about to tell scientists how to do their job. 

(smokestack photo from Sierra Club website)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Human rights are not negotiable.

Below is a video of the President's statement today on the situation in Libya.  Note that he never talks about US economic or military interests in the region, or whether we favor Sunnis or Shiites, or what policy directions the governments in North Africa and the Middle East should take.  Instead, the President simply makes a strong statement in favor of basic human rights of free speech and assembly, and legitimate democratic movements. This is the time to be clear and unambiguous that we stand for the people, and for peace, and against violence, tyranny and oppression.

The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous and it is unacceptable. So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya. These actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop.

The United States also strongly supports the universal rights of the Libyan people. That includes the rights of peaceful assembly, free speech, and the ability of the Libyan people to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. They are not negotiable. They must be respected in every country. And they cannot be denied through violence or suppression.

Here is another excerpt:
The change that is taking place across the region is being driven by the people of the region. This change doesn’t represent the work of the United States or any foreign power. It represents the aspirations of people who are seeking a better life.

As one Libyan said, “We just want to be able to live like human beings.” We just want to be able to live like human beings. It is the most basic of aspirations that is driving this change. And throughout this time of transition, the United States will continue to stand up for freedom, stand up for justice, and stand up for the dignity of all people.

(full transcript here)


Friday, February 18, 2011

Truth and the Deficit

Here is Senator Bernie Sanders pointing out the hypocrisy of those who never said a word about the deficit when Congress voted for $3 trillion worth of spending for an unpaid war in Iraq; or when Congress extended tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; or when Congress voted for prescription drug benefits that will generate many billions in profits for pharmaceutical companies; or when Congress voted to bail out the financial system. (He acknowledges that the last one didn't end up costing taxpayers much, but there was always a risk that it could have.) Now all of a sudden Congress has developed deficit fever when that means taking benefits away from the poor and the sick.



And click on this link to read Paul Krugman's latest column where he spreads some more truth about the "fraudulent" deficit debate, namely that all of the cuts in discretionary spending that are being discussed right now will do almost nothing to rein in the deficit. The only credible way to deal with the deficit, Krugman points out, is to take serious steps to control health care costs, and also to pay some attention to increasing revenue. Krugman gives credit to President Obama for doing "more to rein in long-run deficits than any previous president. And if his opponents were serious about those deficits, they’d be backing his actions and calling for more; instead, they’ve been screaming about death panels."

The only reason politicians can get away with talking so much about reducing discretionary spending, which will not do much at all to reduce the deficit, is that they are able to take advantage of the public's lack of knowledge of the components of the federal budget. We need more truth-tellers like Sanders and Krugman to force Congress to come to grips with reality.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Improving the Budget Debate

Let the budget wars begin!  Reacting to the administration's proposed budget, the opposition seems solely focused on how much the government can cut spending. In their eyes, all spending is bad, all taxes are bad, and the deficit is bad. They have made no proposals to reduce spending sufficiently to cut the deficit much, however.  They can't put forward sufficient spending reductions to do that, because you would have to cut Medicare if you really want to cut the deficit, and you would also have to raise taxes.  Republicans have pretty much boxed themselves into a corner on taxes, and they can't reduce Medicare spending significantly without losing an important electoral constituency. So they have no real solution, and we will never see a politically saleable  proposal from the Republicans that cuts spending sufficiently to eliminate the deficit without raising taxes. (To my conservative friends who doubt that, I challenge you to specify a trillion dollars in budget cuts you could make this year, and still think you could get elected to any national office.)

The president's proposed budget doesn't do much about the deficit either, but makes some serious spending cut proposals,and proposes some new spending initiatives in the areas of infrastructure and education.  That should at least open up the possibility of having a more interesting debate about whether some government spending might actually be good, if it represents an investment in our future. What both sides should now openly acknowledge is that they don't really care about the deficit (if they did they would never have agreed to massive tax cuts in December).  Let's just admit that nobody really wants to reduce government spending enough to make a serious dent in the national debt because people actually support the programs that require all that spending. For anyone who reacts with horror to the idea that we should admit we don't care about the increase in the national debt, let me remind you how both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush would react if anyone reminded them that their policies were leading to massive increases in the national debt. Whenever that happened, they would just shrug their shoulders and change the subject. We could stand to be a little more nonchalant about the deficit right now, talk about what investments might actually be good for the future of our country, and try to stop repeating the stale debate we are used to having, in which all spending is lumped together as bad, and raising taxes is always unmentionable.

We'll deal with the deficit later, when the economy improves enough so that reducing the deficit will not be as difficult as it seems now.

Here is the president taking questions about the budget and other matters:




And as an aid to anyone who wants to accept my challenge to fix the budget, this might be a helpful chart.  Remember the object of the challenge is to wipe out the approximately $1 trillion projected deficit without raising taxes, and then explain how you could still get elected to national office:

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Abortion and the Constitution

Here is over an hour of fairly technical, seemingly trivial debate by a House Committee marking up a bill to further restrict the availability of abortions under the Affordable Care Act. The interesting part starts about a half hour in when Congressman Weiner objects that the bill fails to meet the Republicans' new rule that it contain a specific citation to the provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the authority to enact it.



Why is this interesting (other than for people like myself who might be geeky enough to find this stuff inherently interesting)? Recall that the new crop of Republican House members rode in to power in part by questioning whether the federal government has in recent decades acted beyond what they perceive as its legitimate limited powers. One of the solutions they proposed was to require that every bill introduced in the House must carry a description of the Constitutional authority for enacting it. One might well question the point of this rule, since the Congress cannot bind the courts by its own opinions of the Constitutionality of the legislation it enacts, but let's grant that the rule could serve a useful purpose by at least forcing Congress to think about the Constitutional source of power for its legislation. In fact, Congressman Weiner, a liberal Democrat, states that he is a supporter of the rule for that reason.

Anyway, here it is one of the very first times that Republicans are compelled to comply with their own rule, and their attempt at doing so seems rather perfunctory at best, lacking the critical element of a citation to an actual clause of the Constitution that the rule seems to require. Indeed, if the statement of Constitutionality contained in this bill suffices to comply with the rule, the rule has already been rendered almost meaningless. Maybe not quite as meaningless as a statement that Congressman Weiner's daughter has curly hair, in the example the Congressman gives, but pretty meaningless nevertheless.

Is this just an example of Republican hypocrisy, or grandstanding? It might be more an example of the new Republican majority opening up a can of worms they did not quite realize they would be opening. For this bill raises constitutional issues in two very tricky areas for the Republican majority. For one, since it deals with amending the Affordable Care Act, it forces the Republicans to confront the constitutionality of health care legislation. They would like to be able to say that since the Act itself has been held unconstitutional (by two out of four federal judges who have considered it), then any legislation amending that act must be constitutional. That argument does not quite work, unless Congress is trying to repeal the act in toto. For if Congress is merely changing some of the provisions of the health care act, then it is also legislating in an area that the Republican majority would like to say went beyond its constitutional authority in the first place. That might require Republicans to admit that the original act was authorized by the Commerce Clause or some other Constitutional provision.

The second tricky constitutional issue for Republicans is abortion. The desire of socially conservative Republicans to restrict abortion rights as much as possible runs smack into their expressed concern about keeping Congress within its proper constitutional bounds. The problem they have is that the Supreme Court has clearly held that legislation that unduly restricts a woman's right to have an abortion is unconstitutional. So justifying any piece of legislation that restricts abortion rights right away presents a constitutional problem that cannot be avoided. It's hard to find a constitutional provision justifying legislation restricting abortion rights when the Supreme Court has clearly held that the Constitution prohibits Congress from unduly restricting a woman's right to choose.

So what happens to the whole effort to force Congress to think harder about the constitutional authority for expansions of federal power? It might not quite be empty rhetoric just yet, but the movement already seems to be foundering on the controversial issues of health care and abortion. And I'm sure we will see more examples in the future where one side or the other has reason to avoid making a clear statement about the constitutionality of legislation they propose. It's been true throughout our history that both parties have favored expansions of federal power when it suits their interests, and both have opposed expansions of federal power when they simply didn't like what the federal power was doing. What both Republicans and Democrats may soon realize is that their attacks on the other side's constitutional authority to enact particular pieces of legislation might just be a way to lend more weight to what are basically policy disagreements. The truth is that as for the Constitution goes, each side has its favorite parts, but they don't have fundamentally different conceptions of the Constitution as a whole.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Change Comes to Egypt.

Here is an excerpt from President Obama's speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, the part where he addressed the subject of democracy:

"I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.
That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.
There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people."
I would not presume to credit President Obama with the Egyptian people's amazing achievement today of toppling a dictator.  It was the Egyptians themselves, by means of the last couple of weeks of heroic, massive, peaceful protests, who did that. But I would credit the President with being prescient enough to address the issue of democracy in his historic overture to the Muslim world nearly two years ago.  And I would credit a worldwide movement, led by young people, for peaceful, democratic change--a movement that brought Barack Obama to the presidency in America--with playing a part in inspiring similar movements elsewhere. That movement has today borne fruit in Egypt, and must be causing concern among dictators anywhere they remain in power.

Everyone should wish the people of Egypt well in their continuing difficult quest for democracy and freedom.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thinking Big

The President traveled to Michigan today to talk up high speed internet.  This is just days after talking up high speed rail.  If you are against this, how do you explain how South Korea and Romania and Cuba and many other nations are able to afford to hook everyone up to high speed connections, but we are not?  If we could build the transcontinental railroad after the Civil War, and the Interstate Highway System after World War II, we can certainly do this.  We have to do it just to catch up to what other countries are doing.

While the President is going around the country getting people excited about these kinds of infrastructure investments, helping us dream about faster internet access and getting from place to place quickly without all the hassles of airplane travel, the Republicans in Congress are talking about cutting funds for education, clean air, clean water, veterans benefits, redevelopment projects, and all kinds of other good stuff.  I wonder who's going to be more popular next election year?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Big News

Obama headline of the day:  First Lady Michelle Obama confirmed at a luncheon that her husband has quit smoking. In fact, he hasn't smoked a cigarette in almost a year. This might seem like trivial news given other big events this week (largest demonstrations ever in Cairo; Toyota absolved by NASA; Huffington sells out to AOL; etc.), but still gets a lot of attention.  Why? Perhaps because the fact that the President has a vice, and struggles to overcome it, makes him more human. That can only be a good thing to force even  those who attempt to demonize him, instead to consider him as a flawed human being like the rest of us.

So politically speaking, was it really a good idea for the President to have solved this problem so early in his term? For the sake of letting people see his human weaknesses, President Obama might need to pick up a new vice to struggle with. Let's see, fast food is out given his wife's anti-obesity campaign. Besides Clinton used that one already. Sports? Not really seen as a vice. Trashy novels? Doubtful people would believe the President likes those. Gambling, drugs, sex? All too scandalous these days. On second thought, and I hate to recommend this, since it is bad for his health, but for the good of the country, perhaps it would be best if the President fell off the wagon and picked up the occasional cigarette once in a while, so he could still be trying to quit during the 2012 campaign.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Pre-Game Interview

For those who missed Bill O'Reilly's pre-game interview with President Obama yesterday, here is a transcript:

Q: First of all, Mr. President, I want to thank the State Department for helping to protect some of our Fox News employees in Egypt.

A: You're quite welcome, Bill, although we did consider for a moment staying out of the way and letting Fox people fend for themselves, since Fox is always advocating less government interference with business.

Q: Why can't you even show enough respect for the office of the Presidency to wear a tie?

A: Bill, it's Super Sunday. You're the only guy in America right now who is wearing a tie.

Q: A lot of people are saying that you have shifted to the center since the midterm elections. Have you finally started to recognize the power of the dark side?

A: I think I am just going to smile and let you ask your next question.

Q: OK, well what about the health care act? What are you going to do when it is repealed, if it's not declared unconstitutional first?

A: Bill, you seem to forget that I have this power called the veto. Also I used to teach constitutional law.

Q: Why haven't you fixed this situation in Egypt yet? The American people are demanding that you convert all those Egyptians to Christianity, and make sure they don't make any trouble for us.

A: Really, I thought that Americans are in favor of free speech and religious tolerance.

Q: Not the ones who watch our network. But finally, Mr. President, doesn't it bother you that everyone hates you?

A: I'm not sure that everyone hates me.

Q: Oh yes, we've been telling our viewers that everyone hates you for quite some time, so it must be true.

A: Well Bill, much as I'm reluctant to question the journalistic accuracy of Fox News, I have to remind you that not everyone watches it. Plus, don't you think that if you started to tell the truth about me, even your viewers might cut me a little slack?

Q: That would not be good for our ratings, Mr. President. Thank you for your time.

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-us&brand=foxsports&playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:853c4fb4-42fc-4b41-a618-b7da0923bf4f&showPlaylist=true&from=IV2_en-us_foxsports_videosearch&fg=RAMP" target="_new" title="NFL on FOX: O'Reilly interviews Obama">Video: NFL on FOX: O'Reilly interviews Obama</a>

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Hope and Change in Football

Today we will see the Pittsburgh Steelers, named after the steelworkers, go up against the Green Bay Packers, named after the meatpackers, in the Super Bowl. In addition to honoring the working class with their names, both teams have reputations for being among the most liberal in the NFL, with the Steelers in the forefront of promoting minority advancement, as well as being relatively pro-union. And the Packers? As explained in the clip below, they are practically a Communist organization, the only non-profit, community-owned team in the NFL.

Is it a coincidence that these two teams are also among the most successful in the league on the field?



(Thanks to a couple of facebook friends for drawing my attention to this clip.)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sarah Palin Explains Egypt.

Here is Sarah Palin's comment to the press on the situation in Egypt, given after a speech last night to the Young America's Foundation:

"It's a difficult situation, this is that 3am White House phone call and it seems for many of us trying to get that information from our leader in the White House it it seems that that call went right to um the answering machine. And nobody yet has, no body yet has explained to the American public what they know, and surely they know more than the rest of us know who it is who will be taking the place of Mubarak and um, no, not, not real um enthused about what it is that that's being done on a national level and from DC in regards to understanding all the situation there in Egypt. And um, in these areas that are so volatile right now because obviously it's not just Egypt but the other countries too where we are seeing uprisings, we know that now more than ever, we need strength and sound mind there in the White House. We need to know what it is that America stands for so we know who it is that America will stand with. And um, we do not have all that information yet."  (More of this interview here)

All clear now?










Now that we've heard from Miss Alaska, our next contestant is Miss South Carolina:



I guess we can all agree that our educational system has some serious deficiencies.

Now let's hear from someone who actually knows what she is talking about. From Secretary of State Clinton's remarks in Munich today on the situation in the Middle East:
In the Middle East, we have not yet seen security and democratic development converge in the same way. Let me offer a few observations about where we’ve come from and where we need to go. We have built strong security partnerships with countries across the region to promote peace between Israel and her neighbors, to curb Iran’s dangerous nuclear ambitions, to support economic development, to stop the spread of terrorism, and we will continue to advance these goals, these goals we believe are essential to American and European security as well as the security of the people in the region.
For decades, though, most of these same governments have not pursued the kind of political and economic reforms that would make them more democratic, responsible, and accountable. . . .
Leaders in the region may be able to hold back the tide for a little while, but not for long. That has been the story of the last weeks. It is what has driven demonstrators into the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and cities throughout the area. The status quo is simply not sustainable. So for all our friends, for all the friends in the region including governments and people, the challenge is to help our partners take systematic steps to usher in a better future where people’s voices are heard, their rights respected, and their aspirations met.
This is not simply a matter of idealism. It is a strategic necessity. Without genuine progress toward open and accountable political systems, the gap between people and their governments will only grow, and instability will only deepen. Across the region, there must be clear and real progress toward open, transparent, fair, and accountable systems. Now, in some countries, this transition is happening quickly; in others it will take more time. Different countries face different circumstances.

And of course, there are risks. There are risks with the transition to democracy. It can be chaotic. It can cause short-term instability. Even worse – and we have seen it before – the transition can backslide into just another authoritarian regime. Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy only to see the political process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception, and rigged elections to stay in power or to advance an agenda of extremism.

So the transition to democracy will only work if it is deliberate, inclusive, and transparent. Those who want to participate in the political system must commit to basic principles such as renouncing violence as a tool of political coercion, respecting the rights of minorities – ethnic and religious minorities, participating in a spirit of tolerance and compromise. Those who refuse to make those commitments do not deserve a seat at the table. We will continue to champion free and fair elections as an essential part of building and maintaining a democracy.

But we know elections alone are not sufficient. They’re not even sufficient to secure lasting change. So we also must work together to support the institutions of good governance, the rule of law and an independent judiciary, transparency and a free press, strong political parties, protection for the rights of minorities and more, because those, indeed, are the building blocks of a true democracy. . . . 

Now, some leaders may honestly believe that their country is an exception, that their people will not demand greater political or economic opportunities, or that they can be placated with half measures. Again, in the short-term that may be true, but in the long-term it is untenable. And in today’s world where people are communicating every second of every day, it is unbelievable. Other leaders raise fears that allowing too much freedom will jeopardize security, that giving a voice to the people, especially certain elements within their countries, will lead to chaos and calamity. But if the events of the last weeks prove anything, it is that governments who consistently deny their people freedom and opportunity are the ones who will, in the end, open the door to instability.

So when we make this case to our friends in the region, we do so in the fundamental belief that their countries will emerge stronger and more prosperous if their societies are more open and responsive. Democracies with vibrant and truly representative institutions resolve differences not in the streets, but in city halls and parliament buildings. That is what leads to real stability and security. That is what leads to prosperity. That is what makes countries even stronger allies.

(Full text on the State Department website)

So Sarah, any more questions on what America stands for and who we stand with? We stand for and with the people. Let's be clear on that.

The Bridge Across the Valley of Death

In this video, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors Austan Goolsbee makes clear why we need to get past the useless and stale debate over whether government is evil or business is evil. Aren't we bored with that already? Shouldn't our political debates go beyond whether government should raise taxes or cut taxes, increase spending or cut spending? Instead we might want to talk about what we should be spending money on. We need to talk about practical solutions that help businesses succeed, whether those come from government or from the private sector. If we can re-frame the debate in this way, everyone can participate in contributing ideas, because we all share the goal of helping small businesses succeed.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

All for show

After the complaints from Republicans during the health insurance debate in 2009-10 that Democrats were shoving their bill down the people's throats, and that Democrats were rushing to deal with health care while ignoring more pressing economic needs, one would think that the Republicans would do things differently when they took charge. And they did.  Instead of holding hundreds of hours of committee hearings as the Democrats did on health care reform, the Republicans held none. Instead of making efforts to modify their proposals to attract the support of some members of the opposition party, they offered a straight repeal bill that could not obtain the support of a single Democratic Senator. Instead of days and days of debate, they rushed their bill through with virtually no debate.  Instead of putting forth any serious proposals to deal with continued high unemployment, they rushed to hold votes on health care legislation for which they knew they did not have the votes in the Senate to win.

So the Senate yesterday ended this futile effort by a party line vote of 51-47.  But Republicans should be grateful that the Democratic majority even allowed their repeal bill to the floor, considering how many House-passed bills were not even allowed to come to a vote in the Senate in the last Congress, because the Republican minority opposed even allowing these bills to come up for a straight up or down vote.

People can criticize the Obama administration for making too many deals and compromises in an effort to pass legislation. They can make the opposite criticism that the administration has pushed through some kind of radical, socialist agenda. People can say that the Obama team hasn't always sold its accomplishments as well as they might have, or people might explain the administration's struggles by noting that many of the Obama programs--especially the stimulus, the bailouts, and health care reform--have just not been very popular with a large segment of the population. But it would be hard to argue that the Obama administration has done anything just for show. Instead, its efforts have been directed at getting things done, popular or unpopular, compromised or not. The goal has always been to get as much done as possible.

The Republicans in Congress could learn something from watching the Obama administration at work, and from their own failed effort to repeal health care reform. Now that they have had their fun, and they can get whatever political advantage they can from being able to tell constituents that they fulfilled their promise to put repeal up for a vote, as well as being able to tell voters in 2012 that if they want to repeal health care reform, they will have to elect a Republican President and a few more Republican Senators, now is when they should consider rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on stuff that they might actually be able to get done.

(poster from Credo petition campaign)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hope and Change in Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, . . .

If you want to remain hopeful, you probably wouldn't call the tide of protests sweeping the Middle East a "contagion," the term this morning's Los Angeles Times used to try to keep up with rapidly-moving events in the region.  Yet the term is probably apt to describe just how quickly the protests in Tunisia and Egypt have already begun to "infect" other countries.  In Jordan, the king has dismissed the cabinet and called for reforms.  In Yemen, massive protests against the government have already broken out.  In Syria, activists are attempting to organize similar demonstrations.  And in Sudan, which is already scheduled to be split in two, the central government of what will be only the northern, Arab half of the country has opened a dialog with protesters. 

The last time we saw such a wave of sweeping change was 1989 in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  We can only hope that the wave of protests in the Arab world will end as favorably as that last wave.  To make sure that this movement does not end badly, it's probably good to keep in mind that the issues are not as simple as democracy vs. authoritarianism.  As I mentioned in a previous comment on an earlier post, democracy is worthless unless you also have respect for human rights, and the rule of law. Otherwise democracy just turns into mob rule, and can be as intolerant and repressive as rule by a dictator. I've been thinking about Fareed Zakaria's book The Future of Freedom that I read several years ago,which makes the same point that building liberal institutions is more important than simply advocating democracy.  Think of how this country was founded, which might serve as a model.  The most important thing the Constitution provided was a mechanism for checks and balances among the branches of government.  That built on more than 100 years of experience developing those institutions during the Colonial period.  The next thing the Constitution needed was a bill of rights making sure that all citizens' basic rights would be protected.  Democracy was probably only a third priority, and it was only partially guaranteed by the Constitution. Voting rights expanded gradually thereafter, as the franchise was gradually extended to everyone, and as direct election of representatives was added to the Constitution by amendment.  And we still don't have direct election of the President even after more than 200 years of our experiment with republican government!

Most likely my ulterior motive for insisting that the rule of law and human rights are more important than democracy, is concern about how events in the Middle East will affect the State of Israel. There is a segment of opinion which I am sympathetic to that reacts to any news story by asking, "is it good for the Jews?" In the long run, properly functioning democracies in the Arab world should be good for the Jews, since right now Israel is the only functioning democracy in the region, but in the short run, Israelis have reason to be worried. There are elements in Egypt and Jordan, which have been suppressed for thirty years, who are unsympathetic to the thirty year old peace with Israel, one of the cornerstones of Israel's security. It would be dangerous to allow groups that want to scrap peace and scapegoat Israel for the problems of other countries in the region, to come to power. To deal with those valid concerns, as well as to provide the best future for the people in all the countries now experiencing legitimate upheaval against anti-democratic leaders, the movement for change must incorporate respect for the principles of non-violence, respect for the rule of law, and protection of human rights.

Those who are impatient with how cautious the Obama administration has been in dealing with upheaval in the Arab world should understand that they must take into account these same concerns, and others. We want to see a repeat of Eastern Europe in 1989.  We do not want to see a repeat of Iran in 1979.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Dow Passes 12,000!

Amid all of the momentous events in the Middle East, did anyone notice that the Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed another milestone today? That means the market is back to where it was in the spring of 2008, before the 3000 point drop in the Dow that occurred in September 2008. That means the stock market is up about 50% since President Obama took office in January 2009, when the Dow was at around 8000.  (The index hit a low of about 6600 in March of 2009.) Nobody seems to want to celebrate this news the way it should be celebrated.  The President's opponents do not want to give him or or his team's economic policies credit for the surging stock market. And there is still so much distrust of Wall Street after the 2008 crash, that nobody is particularly happy to see Wall Street making money again.

But imagine the alternative. Imagine if the market had continued to slide for the two years after President Obama's election.  Banks would be closing; taxpayers would have lost hundreds of billions on the bailouts, instead of just about breaking even; millions would still be feeling sick every time they looked at their retirement savings statements, instead of noticing that their savings have been largely restored; unemployment would probably be even higher; and we would be facing, if not already embroiled in another Great Depression.

So I call for at least a little dancing in the streets at the news of the stock market's continued rebound. Take it away, Martha: